5 Ways To Make Teacher Professional Development Effective (& 7 Powerful Resources)All Posts
Written by Ryan Stanley
Reviewed by Joshua Prieur, Ed.D.
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- School Leadership
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Every educator has at least one tale of a teacher professional development session gone wrong. But how can you avoid those mistakes?
It’s difficult to plan and execute creative opportunities for teachers to continue to build their skills. Many school leaders will admit that professional development is the last thing on their mind in the middle of a busy school day.
If you want to improve teacher professional development and build a positive school culture, this post is for you.
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What is teacher professional development?
Teacher professional development is any type of continuing education effort for educators. It’s one way teachers can improve their skills and, in turn, boost student outcomes.
Learning can take place in formal or informal settings. Formal settings include conferences, courses, seminars, retreats and workshops. Informal opportunities for teacher professional development include independent research or investigation, peer learning initiatives or even just chatting with a colleague in the staff room.
Professional development for teachers takes place on a number of different levels: district-wide, among teachers in a given school, or even on a classroom or individual basis.
Why is teacher professional development important?
It affects student learning
It’s obvious that good teachers are better at teaching students effectively. When teachers have access to continuous learning opportunities and professional development resources, they’re better equipped to become good teachers — especially if their students have learning needs or are performing below or above grade level.
Student achievement should be the ultimate goal of any teacher professional development activities. Hayes Mitchell of Leaning Forward, a professional development organization, writes:
“The most effective professional development engages teams of teachers to focus on the needs of their students. They learn and problem solve together in order to ensure all students achieve success.”
It encourages the success of new teachers
According to one study, almost a third of teachers leave the profession within five years of qualifying.
While there are a number of explanations for this statistic, there is no substitute for hands-on experience when it comes to effective classroom teaching. Teachers spend their whole careers developing new skills in response to the challenges they encounter, but new teachers haven’t had a chance to build their own resources.
Professional development can help new and experienced teachers develop the skills they need to feel confident in the classroom. Effective professional development helps teachers shape career-long learning.
It promotes a growth mindset
Thoughtful, targeted teacher professional development opportunities boost student outcomes and promote a growth mindset.
Teacher professional development encourages teachers to be active participants in their own learning, and ensures that students and teachers alike are eager to learn. When you provide learning and support for your teachers, you communicate that the school community values the work they do and wants them to grow.
A lack of professional development resources for teachers can be discouraging. It communicates that you don’t want to invest in the quality of teaching and puts more stress on teachers to develop their skills alone.
How to make teacher professional development effective and engaging
There are lots of challenges to running an effective teacher professional development session: time, money, engagement, effectiveness, and more. While the challenges may be daunting, they shouldn’t stop you from creating opportunities for your teachers to deepen their understanding.
1. Make it specific
Every teacher faces unique classroom challenges and comes to work each morning with a different set of skills.
However, in the name of time, cost and efficiency, many professional development opportunities for teachers are too broad and not relevant to most, or even many, of the teachers attending.
If you want professional development to be relevant, ask your teachers for their suggestions — there’s a good chance that they have plenty to say.
Give teachers a choice about what or how they learn. Give different options for workshops or courses they can take.
If you can’t offer different options, keep the topic simple. Go for depth instead of breadth, and make sure that teachers come away from the session with all the information they need to start using it in the classroom.
Ask for feedback at the end of the session, and then use it to continue the cycle. Ask teachers what worked, what didn’t, what they would change and what they’d like to learn more about next time. As former North Carolina governor Bev Perdue writes:
“Change in education is driven by teachers, but teachers have been left out of the conversation. They know what their classrooms need, yet they don’t feel empowered or emboldened by their school systems and their states, and they lack the tools and funding they need to help their students succeed.”
There are a number of ways to make teacher professional development more specific. To begin, use tools like Google Forms to collect information on what teachers want to learn more about, and feedback on the effectiveness of past sessions. Other options include:
- Divide teachers up into groups based on grade level or subject area. For example, a general session on inquiry-based learning can be made more effective if all your school’s physics teachers brainstorm ways to apply the technique consistently within their department.
- Make sure it’s a topic that feeds into your school’s overall educational goals. As Rita Platt, a National Board Certified teacher, says: “If you can’t tell us how the inservice will help us move toward the school goals, don’t ask us to sit through them.”
- Pair teachers up to develop an interdisciplinary teaching activity. When two teachers work together, they use out-of-the-box thinking to create a dynamic learning experience for their students.
2. Get teachers invested
Most teachers will tell you they don’t enjoy being treated like students -- they’re educated professionals who are there to develop an existing, unique and powerful skillset.
In this scenario, it’s unlikely that the session is going to have a meaningful impact or inspire change in the classroom. A lack of engagement is just as fatal for teachers as it is for students.
If you’re running a session about active learning in the classroom, use active learning techniques. If it’s about service learning, have teachers research opportunities or organizations where their class can get involved.
Teachers need to be interested and engaged. Just like their students, teachers learn in different ways and respond differently to auditory, kinesthetic, written or visual learning methods.
Diana Laufenberg, founder and Executive Director of Inquiry Schools, recommends making different entry points for different learners, similar to a differentiated classroom.
A discussion on blended learning could include a number of different ways for teachers to connect with the topic:
- Ask hands-on learners to demo relevant software
- Have teachers who prefer to work collaboratively brainstorm with colleagues for subject-specific ways to introduce technology into the classroom
- Give a teacher who’s already tried blended learning techniques an opportunity to share her successes and challenges
3. Make it ongoing
The success of a professional development (PD) session relies not only on its immediate impact but also on its longevity in the classroom.
According to a systematic review published in 2021, the quality of teaching is closely linked with student outcomes and educational equality. Interestingly, the review further points out that certain forms of PD have been associated with significant, enduring impacts on both teacher practices and student achievement.
Without a commitment to continuous learning and support, teachers may hesitate to implement new strategies and ideas in their classrooms. This can lead to unproductive uses of time and resources. It's crucial to make sure teachers receive the necessary support as they strive to enhance their teaching methods.
Encourage teachers to approach you with any questions or concerns. Use both student and teacher performance data to make informed decisions about future areas of focus and strategies to enhance student learning. By doing this, you're not only showing your support but also using evidence-based practices to guide your decisions, aligning with the latest research findings.
EdTech software is quickly becoming one of the best ways to collect actionable data on student achievement and understanding. Opportunities to train educators on subject-specific EdTech platforms give teachers the tools they need to confidently use student data to improve their classroom teaching.
Prodigy Math is a free, standards-aligned math game that challenges students in a world filled with education and adventure. Real-time data and powerful reports give school leaders and teachers valuable insights into what classroom techniques are encouraging student success, and where student achievement can be improved.
4. Embed it into the teaching process
In 2015, a survey by The New Teacher Project found that even through districts spend an average of $18,000 per teacher each year, only about 30 percent of teachers noticeably improved as a result.
At some level, professional development is always going to cost money for your school and district. But you can control one of the other major costs: your teachers’ time. Effective learning doesn’t take place in an afternoon, and often teachers and administrators struggle to fit teacher professional development opportunities around actually teaching.
Time is a commodity that you cannot avoid using — but you can spend it wisely. This doesn’t mean spending less time on teacher professional development activities, but it means maximizing the time that you do have.
This can happen a few different ways:
- Deepen subject knowledge. It’s crucial for teachers to illustrate to students how lesson content is being used or talked about outside of the classroom, especially in middle school and high school. Challenge teachers to create lesson content on current historiographical trends, advancements in medicine, or the latest breakthroughs in physics.
- Break it up. Learning is generally more effective if it takes place during the school day, where teachers have the chance to apply key takeaways immediately. Consider hosting a lunch-and-learn, or doing short PD sessions at the beginning or end of the school day.
- Start peer coaching activities. Have teachers observe their colleagues in the classroom on a regular basis. They’ll have a chance to see how their peers handle classroom issues and approach their lessons. They’ll also have the opportunity to collaborate and suggest areas of improvement.
Make sure you’re giving your teachers effective and actionable feedback that helps them to improve. If teachers don’t know where they can do better, they’re not going to ever have the opportunity to act.
In the report “Why Professional Development Matters,” Hayes Mizell outlines a system of “learning teams” that can act as cooperative networks that drive individual and collective professional learning.
To start, look at student data: are there learning gaps in specific subjects or grades? Which teaching strategies need to be developed more to be effective? Which strategies are already working well? Are there any overarching student issues that need to be addressed, either immediately or in the future?
Organize educators into learning teams based on their proximity to issues and assign each a topic with a goal. For example, if you notice that the Grades 4, 5 and 6 classes consistently struggle with fractions, challenge the teachers for those grades to come up with a way to effectively scaffold content and boost student achievement.
Mizell recommends that learning teams meet twice or three times a week, and each have a “skilled facilitator” that can guide them as they focus on what they want to achieve. Newer teachers can learn from the experience of others, and all teachers work together to boost student outcomes.
5. Personalize teacher learning with a Professional Development Plan
Personalized learning works for students, so why shouldn’t it work for teachers?
A Professional Development Plan sets out individual learning goals for educators on a short-term or long term basis and gives clear steps for achieving them.
Sit down with educators in your school and determine what factors should influence their individual plans:
- What subject do they teach?
- What age range?
- Are they happy in their current position? Where do they want to move in the future?
- What do they need to learn to make that happen?
Figure out how individual teachers measure up against your school’s standards. Challenge them to keep learning and stretching their professional capacities and encourage them to continue developing their career.
Use the SMART goal system to set achievable goals: make them Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely. Track them on a monthly and yearly basis to see how teachers are progressing and improving.
Work with teachers to ensure that they have access to any other resources they might need: courses, certification classes or even emotional support as they try new techniques in the classroom.
7 Effective professional development resources for educators
Whether you’re administrator, school leader or an educator yourself, there are plenty of ways to better you or your team as educators. These include:
1. Online courses
Online learning empowers teachers to build skills without putting their job or other commitments on hold. Online educational programs are very flexible, as they are often self-paced, cheaper than university courses and allow teachers to select their own modules.
Popular online courses for teachers include:
- Coursera: This platform offers courses from top universities and organizations worldwide. Some popular courses for teachers include "Foundations of Teaching for Learning" by the Commonwealth Education Trust, "Understanding Classroom Interaction" by the University of Pennsylvania and "Blended Learning: Personalizing Education for Students" by Silicon Schools Fund and Clayton Christensen Institute.
- EdX: Similar to Coursera, edX provides a wide array of courses from institutions around the world. You can find courses on specific subjects like mathematics, science and language arts education, or more general courses on pedagogy and educational leadership.
- FutureLearn: This platform offers a range of courses tailored for teachers.
- The Teacher's Academy: It provides online professional development courses for teachers. Most courses are recognized for Act 48 and Continuing Education credits.
- Canvas Network: They offer free online courses and professional development for teachers. Many of their courses are provided by universities and colleges.
- PBS LearningMedia: PBS provides a variety of online courses for educators. They offer both facilitated and self-paced courses on a wide range of topics.
Like online learning, webinars offer more flexibility and can help teachers tap into expertise from educators across the world. Webinars tend to be short and sweet compared to traditional teacher training options, giving them flexibility to choose when and what they’d like to learn.
Tip: Looking to unlock the power of game-based learning in your instruction? Join our upcoming free webinar: Level Up! Improving K-8 Math Outcomes Using Digital Games to Better Support Your Students.
Each educator brings something unique to their teaching and mentorship is a great way to share skills across your school.
For new teachers, having a mentor in the school can help them through common teaching challenges like preparing lesson plans and mastering classroom management. For existing school teachers, mentoring offers them a valuable learning opportunity to lead and drive change in their school and career.
Mentoring doesn’t just have to happen in the same school. Teachers can also connect with educators in their school district or even go on an exchange during the school year.
Tip: If possible, consider giving mentor teachers full release from their teaching responsibilities to support their mentees. Research suggests that classroom teachers served by full-time mentors saw greater gains in student performance than their peers.
Teachers are by far some of the biggest advocates for reading regularly. But with the many responsibilities they have, they may forget to read for their own growth.
There are plenty of books and magazines for educators available online, bookstores and in libraries. If you’re leading a group of teachers, consider having a casual activity like a book club where teachers can share insights they’ve learned and identify ways to implement them in their instruction.
5. Social media & communities
Having a community can be especially powerful for teachers’ well-being, particularly after the effects of COVID-19 on teaching. It can also be a valuable outlet to for teachers in rewarding yet challenging fields, like early childhood and special education.
Popular teaching communities include:
- Reddit: There are several subreddits for teachers, such as r/Teachers, r/teaching and r/education. These communities offer a place for teachers to discuss their experiences, share resources and seek advice.
- WeAreTeachers: This online community provides a variety of resources for teachers, including lesson plans, classroom strategies and professional development opportunities.
- LinkedIn: There are several groups for educators on LinkedIn, such as the "Teacher's Lounge" and "Innovative Educators." These communities provide a platform for educators to network, discuss topics of interest and share resources.
- Twitter: Teachers use Twitter to connect with each other using hashtags like #edchat, #edtech and #education.
6. Graduate Programs & Higher Education
Returning to university as a teacher was once a commitment that many felt would be too time-consuming, difficult to financially sustain and potentially put their teaching career on hold.
Fortunately, more courses at graduate level are now being offered part-time, giving educators more flexibility to work and study. While higher education can be expensive, it might be ideal for certain teachers who want to grow into leadership or a particular role.
Examples of graduate programs for teachers include:
- Master's in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) – Ideal for teachers wanting to better support students whose first language isn’t English.
- Master's in Educational Leadership or Administration – Ideal for aspiring principals and administrators.
- Master's in Curriculum and Instruction – Ideal for educators wanting to become instructional coordinators.
- Master's in School Counseling – Ideal for educators wanting to specialize in emotional learning.
- Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) – Ideal for teachers wanting to expand their research skills and apply their findings into their instruction.
- Ph.D. in Education – Ideal for teachers dive deeper into pedagogy and evolve into a research role, such as a university professor.
7. Teaching conferences
Conferences, whether in-person or virtual, serve as a valuable resource for teachers to acquire new skills, explore the latest instructional research and network with other educators in their field.
Popular conferences for educators include:
- ASCD Annual Conference
- SXSW EDU Conference & Festival
- National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Annual Convention
- National Science Teaching Association (NSTA) National Conference
- International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Conference
- American Educational Research Association (AERA) Annual Meeting
- National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) Annual Meeting & Exposition
- National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) Annual Conference
- Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT) International Convention
Did you know?: As a leader in game-based learning, you might see Prodigy at some of these conferences! If you see us, stop by and say hello! And in the meantime, here's a free session for you on "The Current State of Digital Game-Based Learning" at SXSW EDU 2023. Feel free to share it with educators who are interested in improving educational outcomes with game-based learning technology!
Final thoughts on teacher professional development
There’s a lot to keep track of in your school, and professional development often falls by the wayside. Instead of feeling bad about that, work to change your school’s culture around professional development efforts.
As educational researchers Thomas Guskey and Kwang Suk Yoon write, the “implementation of any new professional development strategy should always begin with small-scale, carefully controlled, pilot studies designed to test its effectiveness.”
Start small and slowly grow your efforts. When you provide accessible, engaging and supportive teacher professional development opportunities, everyone in your school succeeds.